Study finds foster youth face significant barriers in transitions to college

California students in the foster care system face more significant barriers during their transition from high school to college than their peers and require tailored supports to overcome them, according to a recent study from the Educational Results Partnership and California College Pathways.

Authors of the study analyzed outcomes of more than 4,000 California foster youth and over 621,000 of their peers from their 2016–17 academic year high school cohort. Foster youth included in the study experienced lower rates of school attendance, higher rates of suspension or exclusion, a greater number of high schools attended and less access to advanced placement courses, among other challenges.

“Among students in the California education system, foster youth face a disproportionate number of hurdles towards academic success,” researchers write. “These students require a unique set of educational supports and services to achieve at the same level as their peers.”

The report, “Pipeline to Success: Supporting California Foster Youth from High School to Community College,” highlights the impact that higher rates of mobility has on this student group. While most high school students attended an average of 1.25 schools between grades 9 and 12, foster youth attended an average of 2.55 schools.

“Each move to a new high school requires students to adjust to a new environment, resulting in higher levels of stress and a sense of displacement due to disruptions in academic, family, peer and other important domains among youth,” according to researchers. “Student mobility has also been shown to negatively affect test scores and high school graduation.”

It’s important that districts and practitioners working with foster youth focus on reducing school mobility to mitigate the impact regular moves have on academic outcomes. Developing cost-sharing agreements and transportation plan templates, as well as documenting processes for sending and receiving students between schools, can help ensure smoother transitions if a student does need to transfer schools.

California Education Code has a robust set of protections aimed at helping foster youth maintain a stable school environment. Foster youth have the right to stay in their “school of origin,” even after they have moved foster care placements, if that is in their best interest. If students cannot feasibly stay in their school of origin, foster students have a right to immediate school enrollment at a new school and the right to partial credits for high school students.

Need for a smoother transition from high school to college

The study found that foster youth are applying to community college at a higher rate than their peers, but academic achievement among students in the foster care system lagged behind their peers in both high school and in the first year of community college. Researchers said such findings signal persistent barriers to a successful high school-to-college transition.

To help smooth that transition, the report calls for the provision of dedicated financial resources for supporting foster youth within the K–12 system to go toward maintaining their school of origin, as well as in improving attendance, suspension and exclusion rates for foster youth in high school. The attendance rate for foster youth in the study was 82 percent, compared to 94 percent for their peers. Researchers also found that foster youth were more than two times more likely than other students to face suspension or exclusion throughout their time in high school.

Once these students enroll in a postsecondary institution, researchers said that ensuring access to financial aid for tuition and daily life expenses has a significant positive impact on their success, as do increased educational supports such as counseling and advising services.

Other findings from the report include:

  • Current targeted support programs for foster youth are working: students in the foster care system are accessing financial support grants and academic support services more often than their peers.
  • Linking data from K–12 and community college revealed issues that can be addressed to bolster success for foster youth in their journey toward earning a postsecondary degree.
  • Many foster youth who apply to college don’t end up enrolling. Authors of the study recommended high schools and colleges develop and implement strategies and programs that specifically focus on reducing this lack of momentum for foster youth during this crucial transition point.

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